Woke vs liberal?

Submitted by AWL on 15 July, 2020 - 7:08 Author: Mohan Sen
Harper's letter screenshot

A letter to US literary and political magazine Harper’s signed by 150 writers and academics, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and others, argues there is an increasingly intolerant and intellectually constrictive culture on the left (see here).

It has sparked fierce debate, including a counter-letter (here) signed by a similar number of (less prominent) writers and academics.

Critics argue that the Harper’s signatories create a problem where none exists, or dramatically exaggerate it; and in fact they are defending the powerful and privileged against militant criticism.

A lot of the signatories are old white men, they say. Much has been made of J K Rowling’s signature, because of her transphobic views. Though most of the signatories are left-ish, some are right-wing. But there are many BME signatories and the organiser of the letter, journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams, is black.

Brigid Delaney in the Guardian (here) sees the backlash approvingly as a more radical and collectivist left politics challenging an individualistic and privileged liberalism: “The shift is from ‘me’ to ‘we’... the collective position of the woke”.

But to constitute a genuinely collective political or social force that can supplant liberalism requires a radically democratic culture, of which individual freedom of speech and debate are an essential part, if only a part.

When self-appointed representatives of the “woke” (a collective which has no democratic structure) seek out unvirtuous language or phrases, and use outrage on social media to anathematise and stigmatise those declared unvirtuous, that is not a new and better form of democracy, but corrosive of debate and inquiry. It suppresses “the one who thinks differently” in favour of “we”-thought.

The letter welcomes the “powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts”. It argues that “this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.”

It's hard to judge the “intensification” claim, because the letter can validly be criticised for vagueness, and because I lack knowledge of the issues in the US.

To respond, as left-wing Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has, by pointing out that left-wing activists routinely have their free speech and right to organise suppressed by conservative forces and institutions, is to miss the point. That is certainly the case. The issue is whether the left responds with its own attempts to limit speech, debate and organising, and how we deal with disagreements and arguments between left-wingers and what kind of culture should regulate them.

The Harper’s letter is right to “refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.”

Some of the debates in the US, for instance around “cancel culture”, are hard to follow from outside. But in the UK, there surely is an attempt to “cancel” uncomfortable debate and criticism in many places on the left — most notably in some student organisations and in the Labour Party. We’ve seen that in the recent Momentum elections and in Young Labour, for example.

The victims of this culture within the British left are typically (broadly speaking) left-wing organisations and individuals. We do not find it used, for example, against activity by the Catholic Church on left-wing university campuses. All too often, its advocates fail to speak out against the frequent banning by university administrations, these days, of stalls, literature sales, and posters on campus.

The working class and labour movement need democracy and free debate more than anyone else does.

As Fire Brigades Union General Secretary Matt Wrack put it in the FBU’s book for its 2018 centenary, the labour movement needs “a spirit of openness and pluralism”, with “different voices and opinions... heard”, even when that “may make uncomfortable reading and might provoke sharp debate”.

Too often instead we have “a high handed and dismissive approach to debate” instead of the “culture of debate and democracy which accepts that there will be different views and sometimes sharp differences of opinion… central, and essential, to building any movement to challenge those in power”.

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